I have had a life-long interest in the relationship between health and longevity. In my practice I talk to quite a few healthy very elderly people and every time I ask for their secret, they invariably say, “I eat right.” They never say, “I’m a vegetarian or a vegan.” They aren’t into self-denial. I was discussing diet the other day with a man who said, “My elderly aunt really knows how to take care of herself regarding diet.” Wanting to know more I asked, “What does she do?” He said, “Well, after a day she eats a lot, you know, if she goes to a party or out to dinner, the next day she eats less and goes for a longer walk…” Taken aback, I could only blurt out, “Wow! That’s the secret?” We both laughed at the simplicity of his aunt’s wisdom.
This got me thinking about the deeper consequences of today’s diet trends. Bodies, minds and souls need to be fed well, but have we gone overboard in our dietary extremism? Should people who have no medical problems avoid gluten? I find myself questioning the need for healthy people to restrict themselves unnecessarily. Everyday, somewhere there is a celebrity or sports figure endorsing the benefits of giving up gluten or dairy, saying, “It’s cleared up my skin…I have more energy than before…my mind is no longer in a fog.” Cutting back on cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and partying helps too.
People are becoming more and more puritanical in their dietary beliefs. Foods are either classified as being harmful or beneficial to your health. There is no forgiving middle ground. The good person eats the right diet and woe to the individual who expresses a love for bread or worse, chocolate cake. Then, you are considered a bad influence and people start locking up their children when you are around. To be considered healthy, advertisements brainwash us into thinking that everyone must look the same way—cut arms and abs for men, and big breasts and tiny waists for women. Skinny people are admired for their self-control and held up as role models, but the skinny women I see today remind me of prison-camp survivors, or someone with a terminal illness.
Perhaps it’s time to re-think our prejudices and learn to be kind to one’s self, starting with our food choices. People who severely restrict their diets tend to be unhappy, and filled with fear and anxiety. Anxiety is a tell tale sign of internal stress. Stress, more than anything else, will shorten lifespan. Self-denial often leads to obsessive, extreme beliefs, attitudes and actions. As a psychological trait, extremism is considered destructive self-hatred or a compulsion to destroy one’s humanness. If this isn’t a recipe for inner discord, I don’t know what is.
Today there is a great deal of unease surrounding food (maybe I should have said dis-ease). In parts of the world where food is scarce and famines are commonplace this is understandable. For the underprivileged, an abundant supply of food means increased productivity and wealth. Consumer driven societies like ours, with its ever-expanding set of options are predisposed to excessive over consumption. Perhaps dietary restrictions are a knee-jerk reaction to combat wastefulness. In the absence of massive crop failures, we instead develop food phobias. Food is demonized and considered toxic. While many of these concerns should not be dismissed out of hand, they often merge with deeper psycho-emotional imbalances.
Restrictive dietary trends come and go. The preoccupation with gluten-free products is identical to the fat-free rage of a few years back. Gluten-free foods are often loaded with sugar and calories in much the same way as their fat-free counterparts. Gluten-free cake, however, still is cake. I am not against people who restrict their diets based on moral, religious or health reasons. Cruelty towards animals must be eliminated, but people who believe themselves to be more virtuous and less violent than their meat eating brothers and sisters are misguided. An air of moral superiority and the inducement of guilt in others is an act of violence.
All nutrition is life sustaining, and therefore it should give you a sense of well-being. The earth feeds us and allows us to become what we are meant to be. Our ancestor’s ability to adapt to new sources of food in uncertain times was advantageous. Do you really want to be like the panda that only eats a specific type of bamboo and is facing extinction? People who are flexible in their eating habits are more likely to survive, if only for the fact they are open to new experiences.
Bread was considered the staff of life—there was even a prayer that said, “Give us this day our daily bread…” Today, it is a culinary villain, banished to the backrooms of everyday living. Once a staple in many restaurants, you now have to ask for it, and when the server hands you the bread, he glares at you with disdain. How things change. Historically bread, along with wine was synonymous with human accomplishment—an over-arching achievement of patience, devotion and creativity. Unfortunately, we have lost our visceral connection to mother earth. Bread no longer sustains us and we have become incapable of assimilating it.
People want one magic pill or cure that will keep them alive forever. Silicon Valley guru and author, Ray Kurzweil spends a million dollars annually taking 150 supplements a day. He believes he can obtain immortality by reprogramming his body. The problem is we find one cure only to chase after new ones. The wellness craze is a multi-billion-dollar industry that is making us all health fanatics. We are terrorized into eating the right food, drinking the right drink, and never ever smoking or drinking alcohol. It’s not enough to gulp tons of supplements and eat only avocados or Brussels sprouts. You also have to exercise like a triathlete and detox with religious zeal.
People are filled with fear and neither supplements nor right diet are going to keep them alive indefinitely. You can toss the deep fryer in the garbage, but death will still come. It’s what you do in between that is important. Relentless self-absorption in pursuit of health is isolating. Boredom, suffering and irritation are not worthy goals. We are trapped in a collective state of fear and anxiety. It’s time to start celebrating life in all its seeming arbitrariness. When I talk to people who have experienced the loss of a loved one, the memories they hold most dear are the ordinary ones—walking the kids home from school or the warmth of the family kitchen at dinnertime.
Longevity stems from an engagement with life that combines meaning and joyfulness. Joy is a spiritual connection to life. On my morning walk today I passed a 98-year old lady who stopped and with a big smile on her face said, “It’s spring,” even though it was only -4 degrees. Happy people tend to live the longest. When you take yourself too seriously or feel burdened by life, you increase your risk of ending up in an early grave. Unhappy people generally have low self-esteem and use denial as a way to gain control over their lives. Control is an illusion. No one food imparts immunity to death.
Eat and cook to give pleasure to yourself and others. Pleasure is essential to life. It may be fleeting, but it teaches you how to receive life’s goodness. This is the true and lasting path to happiness. Teach yourself how to eat and then learn how to cook. Cooking awakens your intuition in such a way that you automatically know what is right for you. Everyone needs to eat. Different days require different approaches. To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that, which is planted. There are times to feast and enjoy the comfort and companionship of family and friends. At other times we may need to reduce our intake. Many things determine how we eat: how we feel, what the weather is like, seasonal availability of food, and of course, budget. It’s a question of finding the right balance for you.